Japanese hybrid car sales booming

World wide sales of  Toyota’s gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles have surpassed 5 million in a milestone for a technology that was initially greeted with skepticism.

Toyota’s Vice Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada hailed it as a great “ achievement for this technology to have grown this widespread”. Uchiyamada known as “the father of the Prius” for having led the team that developed the hit model recalled that initially expectations were very low for the hybrid to catch on. The Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car went into production in 1997. Gas-electric hybrids deliver fuel efficiency by switching back and forth between a gasoline engine and electric motor, depending on speed and other driving conditions, and recharge as they travel. The first Prius production plan called for only 1,000 cars a month, Uchiyamada recalled how he had to beg to raise it to that from a proposed 300 a month. But when the Prius was announced, people flocked to dealers in Japan to place their orders even though there wasn’t even a sample model to view in the showrooms.

Marketing experts had warned that Americans would likely not want a car like the Prius because gas prices were then relatively low however when  the Prius debuted in the U.S., it was met with enthusiasm by people Uchiyamada called “opinion leaders,” including Hollywood stars. Since then, gas prices have skyrocketed and nations around the world are struggling to deal with pollution and global warming leading to increased demand for hybrid vehicles.

Toyota’s hybrid cars now account for 14 percent of its global sales and 40 percent of its sales in Japan. Toyota now sells 19 different hybrid car models and one plug-in hybrid, and is promising 18 new hybrids from now through December 2015.

“Toyota has led the world on cost-effective fuel-saving hybrid technology for more than a decade, but the competition is really heating up,” said David Friedman, senior engineer and deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. The organization believes that Honda overall offers greener cars, despite Toyota’s hybrid success.“To stay ahead of the pack on hybrids,” he said, “they will need to focus their hybrids on boosting fuel economy further and cutting costs, while picking up the pace in innovation in their conventional and electric cars.”

The big growth in auto sales is coming these days from emerging markets such as China, Brazil and India, where hybrids have yet to catch on because of higher prices compared with gasoline-powered autos. Uchiyamada agrees that costs will have to come down. But he said such nations were also growing concerned about energy efficiency and emissions and they need to offer incentives, or subsidies, for consumers so they can buy hybrids. “Hybrids have now become a core technology,” he said. “I believe there is a lot more room for this technology to grow.”


Sources include The Japan Times, The Daily Yomiuri

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